Many Egyptians made their living by farming. To help with the heavy jobs on the land, and to transport the produce to the storehouses or market, they relied on their partnerships with animals. Cattle were the main draft animals they used, and donkeys the usual beasts of burden. The evidence comes from tomb paintings, papyrus scrolls and grave goods such as plows and chariots, which were left inside the tomb for the dead person to use in the afterlife.
Every year the Nile flooded over its banks and onto the surrounding land, leaving a rich silt to fertilize the soil. Afterwards the farmers prepared the land for growing crops by plowing the silt into the moist soil. Cows pulled a simple plow, made from a long wooden beam fitted with a metal blade to cut furrows in the soil. Early tomb pictures show teams of cattle linked by a yoke across their horns, with a man walking behind to steer the plow.
Egyptian farmers sowed seed by hand and then herded grazing animals such as cattle, pigs and donkeys over the fields to tread it in. After harvesting, they spread the wheat or barley on the threshing floor and made donkeys or cattle trample it to thresh out the grain. With the invention of an animal-powered irrigation wheel, the sakia, around 500 B.C., donkeys and cattle also helped raise water from wells by dragging the wheel round and round.
Donkeys and cattle provided the main means of land-based transport. Tomb paintings from around 3000 B.C. show donkeys carrying big packs, while cattle pull sledges and wagons. A tomb painting from Thebes shows a funeral cortege drawn by cattle. Mules also appear working as pack and draft animals in art dating from around 1500 B.C.
Choice of Animals
Cattle and donkeys worked in agriculture and transport at all periods throughout ancient Egyptian history. Cattle also had religious significance, being associated with various gods, and were prized for their meat, milk and hide as well as their strength. Horses were introduced in the Second Intermediate Period (1700 to 1400 B.C.), mainly to pull the chariots of wealthy people. Camels became popular for transporting goods across the desert from around 500 B.C.
- Digital Egypt: Cattle in Ancient Egypt
- The Oriental Institute of teh University of Chicago: Ancient Egypt - Farming
- Digital Egypt: Donkeys and Mules
- University of Reading Centre for Agricultural Strategy: The History of Working Animals in Africa
- Irrigation Museum: Irrigation Timeline
- The Saylor Foundation: The Ancient Egyptian Economy
- Digital Egypt: Horses in Ancient Egypt
- Digital Egypt: Camels
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images